Prom 70 Messiaen St Francis of Assisi
Prom 71 Mahler CSO – Haitink
Prom 72 Shostakovich/Mozart CSO Haitink/Perahia, Royal Albert Hall, London
Other concerts pale beside four-and-a-half hours of Messiaen which aim to catch the rapture of prayer
Sunday 14 September 2008
Written in eight, long, meditative scenes, Messiaen's St Francis of Assisi (Prom 70), has been likened to a series of frescos. It's not a bad analogy for this profoundly unoperatic opera, for even in those scenes that most closely approximate conventional music drama – The Kissing of the Leper, The Journeying Angel, Death and the New Life – there is less a sense of witnessing an event unfold than of admiring a single, static image of that event: the kiss, the terrible knock at the door, the last breath.
To Messiaen, the most interesting aspect of Francesco Bernadone's life was not his journey from sophisticate to saint but the rapture he found in prayer, and it is this that the music strives to convey. The colours are dazzling, the textures variously knotted or radiant, congested or severely clear, the word-setting deliberate, even and unhurried. But few people, I think, would spend four-and-a-half hours considering eight images of prayer.
So seldom performed is St Francis of Assisi that the thousand or so people who gathered at the Royal Albert Hall last week for Ingo Metzmacher's semi-staged performance with the cast and orchestra of Pierre Audi's Netherlands Opera production had the fervour of pilgrims. With Heidi Grant Murphy's white-clad Angel declaiming her supple, bell-like birdsong from the organ loft, the simplicity and slowness of the reduced staging only intensified the heady impact of the harmonic concentrate, as serried ranks of woodwind, strings, brass and tuned and non-tuned percussion produced chords of strident brilliance. Under Metzmacher's calm, fluid beat the playing was near-faultless, the singing of Rod Gilfry (Saint Francis), Heidi Grant Murphy, Hank Neven (Brother Leo), Hubert Delamboye (Leper) and the chorus tirelessly committed. Exhausting and exhilarating, frustrating and enchanting, the work is a glorious failure if judged by the standard of other 20th-century operas. Taken on its own terms, it is Messiaen's greatest achievement.
St Francis inevitably bled into the rest of my week, making Mark-Anthony Turnage's affectionately drawn city-scape Chicago Remains seem slight and cute, Mahler's Sixth Symphony (Prom 71) seem underpowered and Shostakovich's Fourth (Prom 72) strangely dry until the final, stricken fade-out. Neither symphony is ideally approached with prayer-dazzled, Messiaen-infused ears, but Bernard Haitink's pristine, analytical accounts of both works with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made me long for more sweat and propulsion.
I've never bought the notion put about by Alma Mahler that the three "hammer blows of fate" in the finale of the Sixth foretold the death of four-year-old Maria Mahler, the anti-semitic putsch at the Vienna Staatsoper and the diagnosis of the heart condition that would kill Mahler at the age of 51. (The shriek of anti-Semitism is in any case a near-constant in his symphonies, present in each mocking call of the E flat clarinet.) But the struggle depicted in the music must have a neurotic dimension if it is to be more than a panoramic slide-show of the Austrian Alps, with cow bells. In the same way, Shostakovich's Fourth must be more than a steroid-enhanced extrapolation of Mahlerian instrumentation to convey the wretchedness of a compromised life. Here, I was impressed but unmoved. So, hazy as the orchestral contribution was, it is Murray Perahia's exquisitely unforced, lyrical performance of Mozart's C Minor Piano Concerto that I'll be taking with me till next year's Proms.
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